Aussie geisha turns to teaching

by Kede Lawson

SYDNEY (Kyodo) Japan’s first Western geisha, Sayuki, has revealed she is taking up a new role: lecturing on Japanese cultural studies at Keio University.

Australian-born Sayuki will teach local and foreign students about traditional culture from a foreign perspective and provide foreign perceptions of Japan.

During a recent trip to Australia, Sayuki said she is proud to be associated with the university, describing it as being at “the forefront (of) new and innovative ideas in education.”

With some geisha nearing 80 years old, Sayuki believes they have “a lot of knowledge and experience to share with the younger generation.”

“Geisha are important custodians of traditional culture in Japan, and I don’t think it is surprising that a geisha should be invited to lecture at university,” said Sayuki, who gave her first lecture on April 9.

Sayuki has lived in Japan for half her life. She first fell in love with Japan at the age of 15, when she was a high school exchange student. She then returned to study at Keio University.

After graduation, she worked for two years at a large Japanese company before earning her doctorate in social anthropology, specializing in Japanese culture, from Oxford University in England.

Sayuki has published a number of books on Japanese culture and produced anthropological documentaries set in Japan, including one on the cultural significance of some of the country’s more dangerous festivals.

Upon her return to Japan, however, she became fascinated by the mysterious flower and willow world, as geisha culture is referred to, and embarked on a yearlong transformation from scholar to geisha.

She initially planned to do a short-term project but soon realized it wasn’t feasible because of the time required to train as a geisha. She has since “abandoned all thoughts of finishing.”

Sayuki describes the process of becoming a geisha as akin to learning a new language and culture. Trainees must be re-educated on the proper way to sit, stand, walk and wear their clothes.

Sayuki, who no longer uses her Western name, specializes in “yokobue” (flute) but was also required to learn the traditional arts of dancing, drumming and tea ceremony.

The thing she likes best about being a geisha is the access it gives her to the beauty and aesthetic sensibilities of that world.

Listing kimono, flower arrangement, dance, music, architecture and art, which make up the flower and willow world, Sayuki said there is no other area where you can see such a complete package of Japanese tradition.

However, she also warned of the unexpected challenges she encountered in the geisha process, including doing 500 squats in one hour at a banquet and having to remember the correct hierarchical order for addressing her 30 elders.

And then there was the problem of finding black contact lenses to disguise her green eyes.

Sayuki, which means “transparent happiness,” debuted as a geisha in December 2007, in the process becoming the first Westerner in 400 years to do so.

She is now based in a geisha house in Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s oldest geisha districts, where she regularly attends banquets as a trainee.

Sayuki is one of 45 registered geisha in Asakusa, and as an English-speaker, offers international visitors a unique glance into a subject that has long captivated foreigners.